“Vultures,” the Lord of House Turombi said under his breath, gazing out across the dance floor. “And the descendants of vultures, picking clean the same bones. A hundred years ago, the Tirasians were back-country farmers barely fit to call themselves a House. A little scheming, a little murder, and now here they sit. Pleased as the foxes they are, amid the ruins of the henhouse.”
Eleanora was sitting with her head angled away, idly tapping a frilled court fan against her cheekbone, which prevented either her father or the crowd from seeing her mouthing along in perfect sync with the familiar speech. Her mother, however, shifted her eyes once, caught Eleanora’s gaze, and held it for a second, silently promising a conversation later. In many ways, Lady Kheethi was her role model; she could scarcely aspire to convey as much detail as her mother did with a simple glance.
Theirs was a sufficiently important House that their box was positioned fairly close to the Imperial dais along the west end of the ballroom. The vast chamber was cleverly laid out for its purposes, with the tables of food on its lowest level just inside the huge doors, the dance floor reached via a short flight of stairs, and ringed by elevated platforms where people not currently moving about could sit in conversation with a splendid view of the dancers. The boxes nearest the stairs were open for general use, while those closer to the dais from which the Empress observed the festivities being reserved, mostly for powerful Houses, heads of cults, ranking Imperial functionaries and the like. House Turombi was only two boxes distant from the Empress herself, a high honor.
Alduron Turombi was less than flattered.
“And here comes one such buzzard now,” he muttered, drawing Eleanora’s attention back to the dance floor.
Indeed, the crown prince was approaching.
Her father’s expression of magnanimous affability was fully back in place by the time Prince Sharidan reached the steps of their box, with Kheethi and Eleanora wearing more demure smiles. The family rose upon his arrival, sketching shallow bows and curtsies, the women taking Alduron’s cue for their precise degree. It would not do to publicly snub the Prince by showing insufficient respect, but showing him one degree more than was absolutely necessary would affront Alduron’s personal pride. They would be hearing about it for days, which Eleanora, at least, would much rather avoid.
“Lord Turombi!” Sharidan said with a broad smile, bowing back to precisely the same degree, which caught Eleanora’s attention and interest. A simple nod of acknowledgment was all protocol required of him; what sort of game was this boy playing? “Lady Kheethi, Lady Eleanora. House Turombi’s presence at our little gala is an honor, but if I may say so, ladies, yours makes it a pleasure.”
Alduron laughed obligingly, and Eleanora doubted that anyone but herself and her mother discerned the display of too many white teeth in his broad, dark face. “Ah, my young prince, you are as dangerous as they say! Have a care; I did not woo this graceful creature only to have her stolen away.”
Kheethi carried on smiling obligingly, but the faint annoyance in the set of her eyes was enough to make both Alduron and Sharidan pause. Eleanora’s smile broadened slightly.
“Well,” the prince said gallantly, rallying, “while I’m sure challenging a man of your stature would teach me some of that humility my mother insists I need, I hope you’ll understand if I prefer to spare myself that lesson.”
“Then you’re already a wiser man than I was at your age,” Alduron replied jovially. “I give my lady wife a great deal of credit for whatever restraint and sensibility I have learned. Perhaps you would find Eleanora a more gentle teacher?”
“Whether I would or not, I suspect the lesson would be a delight!” the prince replied, turning to her and bowing. “Lady Eleanora, would you grant me the honor of a dance?”
Her father barely shifted his head, looking at her out of the corner of his eye, but the barely controlled expression was avid. Eleanora was too practiced to grimace outright as she rose, accepting Prince Sharidan’s proffered hand. “I’m sure the honor would be entirely mine, your Highness,” she said demurely, allowing him to lead her down to the floor. Her father despised the Tirasians over past insults, real and imagined, between their Houses, and never let go of his resentment over the fact that they had ascended to the Silver Throne, while House Turombi had lost its chance. But at the merest prospect of handing her over to Prince Sharidan, his eyes practically lit up with doubloons. It was just a dance, but she knew very well Alduron would marry her off to the Tirasians in a heartbeat, should the possibility arise.
It was the twelfth century, of course; her father couldn’t make her marry against her will. But while there were worse things to her mind than an ingrate who spat in her House’s face after it had invested so much in her upbringing…there weren’t many.
This was a more and more central concern occupying Eleanora’s thoughts, lately.
“My apologies for stealing you away from what I’m sure was a fascinating conversation,” Sharidan said with a smile that was just a shade too knowing. “If I’ve presumed, call it…projecting. I, too, have a parent who knows everything.”
Eleanora raised an eyebrow, studying his expression while they slipped into a waltz with the ease of mutual practice. He was a good dancer, deftly leading without overbearingly trying to manhandle her around the floor. He was also dangerously handsome. Not in the sense of being too handsome; on the contrary, Sharidan Tirasian didn’t have the kind of blinding good looks that made people fall at his feet with no effort on his part. He was just plain enough that he’d had to learn to be charming. And he was very good at it.
“The rescue is appreciated, warranted or not,” she said aloud. “Though I’m forced to wonder whether you would be as quick to spring to my aid if I were less pretty.”
“And so modest!” he said with a truly amazing grin. It was a grin that was open and cheerful, without the faintest hint of malice even though he was technically making fun of her. Expressions like that came from people who were either vastly open-hearted by nature, or phenomenally skilled in manipulation, and she had a feeling she knew which was the case here. “Regardless, of course I would eagerly put myself forward to greet such a distinguished guest to our city. But I greatly appreciate you having the courtesy to be so pretty. Otherwise, this would all be dreadfully tedious.”
Eleanora smiled, finding to her surprise the expression was genuine. “You are very smooth, my prince. Well played.”
“You left yourself wide open for two inappropriate innuendos there, my lady,” he replied with a wink. “I restrained myself, because I am a gentleman.”
“More than two. I was curious how many you would catch, and how many you would go for.”
“Ah, the tests begin! You are clearly as formidable an adversary as you are graceful a dancer!”
“And not exactly a guest, though I appreciate the welcome,” she added. “My father has decided to relocate our family to Tiraas for the forseeable future. Call me…a transplant.”
“Oh.” Sharidan’s expression sobered slightly. “Well, I’m sorry.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Indeed? Are you that worried at having your city full of Turombis?”
“It’s for my mother to worry about tiresome politics, and I don’t think she worries about much, to be frank. I meant personally, my lady. It must be a pain, being suddenly isolated from all your friends and favorite places. Well, I shall do my best to ensure your stay in Tiraas is a pleasant one!”
“That is most kind of you to offer,” she said wryly. “But considering your mother suspects my father of designs on her throne, and he believes your grandfather responsible for the assassination of his grandfather, something tells me we will seldom find ourselves casually socializing.”
“Oh, these older generations and their dreary squabbles,” he said airily, spinning her lightly around. “Everyone’s always so worked up about who’s after whose position or who murdered whose family. That’s just dreadful for the blood pressure; no wonder they all look so pinched all the time. I see no reason we need let such trivialities come between us!”
“No doubt they thought much the same at our age,” Eleanora said sardonically. “It’s funny how today’s rebellious youth become tomorrow’s cantankerous old fogeys.”
“Madam, you are far too young and pretty for such maunderings.”
“Just practicing in advance, my prince. I like to be well-rehearsed before I have to play a role. Otherwise one tends to…trip.”
He grinned while they deftly wove through the other dancers, waiting a moment before replying. “Now, that was a suggestively timed verb! I actually thought you were going to trip me for a second there.”
“I was actually planning to,” she said, grinning back. “But then, I thought you’d have placed a hand on my rear by this point, too. One act of restraint begets another.”
“It’s a small foundation on which to build peace between our Houses, but it’s a start!”
“Do you really care about politics all that much?”
“I can’t afford not to, any more than you can,” he said, and suddenly his expression was serious. It was as if a mask had been dropped, revealing his true face. Eleanora knew very well this was a rapport-building technique, and clamped down on her instinctive response even as she admired the skill of it. “But politics…aren’t everything, you know? It really would be good for our Houses if we were friends, Lady Eleanora. More immediately, it would be good for us. Don’t you agree?”
“Some things,” she said quietly, “are simply too difficult and too fraught to be worth the effort.”
“Hmm.” His smile returned slowly, this time with more than a hint of mischief. “Well. We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”
It wasn’t that Eleanora didn’t enjoy going to parties, despite what her parents thought. She allowed them to continue under the impression that she was an introverted wallflower, because despite her own enjoyment of social events, going to parties with her family was absolutely exhausting.
They only started by ruining everything good about it. There were always interesting people to talk to—with whom she could never get any privacy, and her mother and father’s respective agendas would heavily color any conversation she managed to have in their company. There was excellent food, music, dancing, and other sensory distractions, which of course were extremely difficult to enjoy under a constant barrage of her mother’s passive-aggressive reminders of the importance of ladylike behavior. There were always pretty women in daring gowns, and the gods forbid Eleanora could properly appreciate that. Lady Kheethi had caught her side-eyeing her peers a few times too often, and this was only prevented from being a true source of family drama because her mother cultivated a firm denial that this was An Issue. Eleanora wasn’t about to correct her.
Then, of course, the legacy of House Turombi lay heavily over everything they did. Once, nearly a century ago, their House had almost seized the Silver Throne, and none of them had forgotten it since. The generations-old almost-claim was the reason full-blooded members were always given Tiraan names rather than traditional Onkawi ones, and their choice of styles in everything from fashion to interior décor to cuisine reflected Imperial sensibilities. If not for her mother’s insistence on some traditional education (for which Eleanora was in fact grateful), she could well have grown up knowing little of Onkawa’s actual culture. Her father certainly had.
His incessant muttering and ranting about Theasia Tirasian and all her clan had at least spared her the reminders from her mother of proper behavior and representation of House Turombi’s honor until they were home and out of the carriage—which it turned out was not to her benefit, because it meant she had to endure that much more before she could retreat to her room and some space, finally, to breathe.
It had been such a lovely ball, too. Someday, maybe when the rest of her family was dead, perhaps she could actually enjoy one.
Eleanora immediately felt guilty for that thought. Not as much as she thought she should have, though.
Consequently, when she finally shut the door of her room to find a pile of dirty laundry in the middle of her bed, she very nearly raised her voice, preparatory to excoriating the maid without mercy. Fortunately, she hesitated; Eleanora wasn’t certain her mother had found out about what she and her chambermaid back home had been up to in the privacy of her rooms, but she more than suspected it had played at least a partial role in their family’s relocation. Her father’s political ambitions were at the heart of it, of course, but the sudden termination of Lady Kheethi’s longstanding, stubborn resistance to the idea of moving had made her cautious about being seen or heard to pay too much attention to any of the remarkably pretty Tiraan serving girls who staffed their new residence.
In that momentary pause, she noted a peculiar sparkle atop the pile.
Eleanora approached the bed, studying the heap quizzically. On top of the muddle of soiled linens there was a gleaming silver broach in the shape of a peacock, decorated with tiny emeralds and sapphires—a truly exquisite piece which she did not own, and which was vastly out of place on a pile of laundry. It was holding down a folded piece of paper.
She narrowed her eyes. One of her mother’s? She had never seen it before… And why in the world would one of the servants have brought it in here? They hadn’t been in this house long, but she had seen no hint of such glaring incompetence from any of the staff.
Carefully, she lifted the brooch, picked up the paper, and opened it. A few lines were inked in a neat hand.
We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we? Meet me by the servant’s entrance, if you’d like to attend a party you can properly enjoy, my lady. —S. T.
Eleanora read it three times, drew in a deep breath through her nose, and let it out slowly. And then, somewhat to her own surprise, laughed.
Of course, she knew Prince Sharidan’s reputation. Simply by virtue of his position, the whole world was quite interested in his personal habits—and his appreciation for women was already approaching the status of legend. So, it seemed she had the opportunity to see one of his infamous seductions unfold from the closest vantage possible! Eleanora was actually more than a little tempted to play along, just to see how much she could wind the boy up before he quit. If he thought he was going to spread her legs, he was in for a world of disillusionment.
Setting the note down, she turned her critical eye upon the brooch. A closer inspection bore out her brief one earlier; this was a truly lovely piece, its materials authentic as far as she could tell, and the craftsmanship expert. Also, needless to say, quite expensive—the sort of gift that would turn any young lady’s head, were she of the inclination to have it turned. Eleanora’s first, cynical thought was that for a young man of Sharidan Tirasian’s resources, it was nothing special. It was a truly princely present from a suitor of her own rank; from an actual Imperial prince, she felt she should expect him to start with a Falconer carriage and work up from there.
The more pressing question was, how the blazes had he managed to deliver it? Penetrating a House’s interior security this way was no mean feat. Unless he’d had his eye on her for quite a while before the party—not impossible, but it seemed unlikely—there was almost no way he could have done this on a few hours’ notice with only his personal resources. That Empress Theasia had the means to stick her fingers into House Turombi’s business was a given; the question was whether she was in on this, or Sharidan had co-opted her resources in pursuit of his own desire. That, if anything, made her want even more to play along for a bit, to see just how deep this ran…
Eleanora hummed softly to herself, wandering over toward her vanity and almost absentmindedly pinning the brooch to her dress. The fashions this season were, to her mind, absurd, but they incorporated padded shoulders and lapels almost like men’s suits, which made brooches of this kind an indispensable feature of a lady’s wardrobe.
She froze, forgetting herself so far as to gasp aloud, when she suddenly changed.
Her dress vanished. Her skin altered! Eleanora experienced a moment of panic, then deliberately calmed herself and approached her mirror. By the time she reached it, she had put it all together well enough that she was not shocked to find a totally different face staring back at her.
The face was still pretty, but it was a narrow, much paler Thakari face rather than her own soft features and mahogany Onkawi complexion. That could potentially be construed as an insult, but after a moment’s contemplation, she decided it had probably not been intended as such. People here seemed oddly unable to distinguish between Westerners—not that she had much room to throw stones. Apparently it was possible to tell a Tiraan from a Calderaan at a glance, and she’d yet to figure out how.
More pressing was the matter of the disguise enchantment upon this brooch. This was seriously impressive work, and of course added to the value of the thing considerably. It also underscored the political research which had gone into this—she was now dressed in a perfect copy of one of the maid’s uniforms used by her House, which had been designed by her mother in consultation with a highly recommended tailor upon their arrival in the city.
Eleanora carefully unpinned the brooch, permitting herself a soft sigh of relief when her appearance and dress returned to normal. Then, after another moment’s thought, she smiled mischievously and put it back. Once in place, she could feel its weight at her collar, but it was no longer visible. An obvious precaution, as a servant wearing such a piece would immediately have been detained on suspicion of theft.
She glanced back at the bed, thinking rapidly, and her smile widened. He really had thought of everything. Even the laundry…
Eleanora paused to carefully tuck the prince’s letter into a drawer, then gathered up the armload of linens and slipped out into the hall.
She froze, turning, to find herself being approached rapidly by her own chambermaid.
“So you’re the new girl,” Eliza said in a low voice, deftly tucking a hand under Eleanora’s arm and escorting her down the hall at a rapid pace. “Well, you’re allowed a few slip-ups at first, but you’d best get it together quick-like, my lass. The Lady’s not a harsh one, but she’s particular, and the last thing you want is to be caught faffing around with the laundry at the wrong time. The family’s just back from a party—this should’ve been done hours ago. And what’re you doing in the young miss’s rooms, anyway? She’s my task, I’ll have you know.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Eleanora stammered as she was swept along, trying for a harried, confused aspect. In truth, she felt so gleefully mischievous at all this that her post-party weariness had all but melted away. “I’m new, this is my first post. I didn’t mean to overstep…”
“It’s no great harm, just you keep it in mind,” Eliza said sternly, but with a slight smile. “I was new once—we all were. Let me give you a bit of advice: there’s a pecking order, and you don’t want to forget your place in it. Each of us has a family member we look after, and you’ll not be appreciated for stepping on anybody’s toes.”
“Understood,” she said, nodding eagerly and barely forcing herself not to grin. Oh, this was just too perfect—even if she wasn’t actually planning to indulge Sharidan’s schemes, she felt she owed him something for the entertainment. Emboldened by how well this seemed to be going, she pressed on. “I don’t, that is, um… Are they hard to work for? Anything I should be wary of?”
“Oh, no, dear, you’ve picked a plum post to start out,” Eliza said, quickly leading her down a narrow side passage. “This way, girl, it’s not for servants to be loitering in the upper halls. A well-run household is run so the family needn’t see the running, that’s what Mrs. Raastri says. But no, they’re a good family. Standoffish, you don’t want to put yourself in their way, but his Lordship doesn’t leer or grope, and the Lady’s not cruel. She’s not gentle, but she’s fair and that’s what counts. You do your tasks and mind your conduct and there’s no reason you’ll run afoul of her. Nothing more a staff can ask of their family, so you just appreciate them.”
“I will,” Eleanora promised, nodding. She meant it, too. It was oddly gratifying to know her family were well thought of by their servants; perhaps she was a bit too hard on their parents. “And…the Lady Eleanora? You seem to like working for her…”
“It is not for us to like the family,” Eliza said severely, ushering her into a cramped rear staircase. She had never been in it before, but presumably it led to the servants quarters. Or…the kitchen? Where did they take dirty laundry? It had always just vanished, then reappeared in her closet, clean and pressed. “And you wouldn’t be thinking of moving in on the young miss, I hope.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t presume,” Eleanora assured her. “Just trying to get my bearings. It’s the young ones who’re going to cause trouble if anyone is, don’t you think?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Eliza said dryly. “But no, not in this house. I’m jealous of my position, I’ll tell you that straight up—I take pride in my work and the young miss has never had cause to complain, nor will she. But you needn’t worry about that, either.”
That was so tantalizing Eleanora almost prompted her to continue when she fell silent. She couldn’t immediately think of a way that would be believable, though. Servants gossiped horribly, according to her mother, but now she was in a position to benefit from it, she was unsure how to proceed. Noblewomen gossiped just as badly, but…very likely not in the same terms.
Fortunately for her curiosity, Eliza continued after a moment’s pause. “She’s a tongue like a blade, the young miss has, but she’s no more cruel than the Lady of the house. No reason you’ll have it sharpened on yourself, unless you deserve it. I don’t mind her being a bit sharp, truth be told. She keeps to herself, the young lady does—her pleasures are quiet things. Books and the like. Only goes out with her family, and I’ve never known her to have a friend over. I don’t think the poor girl knows the first thing about having fun.”
“I see,” Eleanora said stiffly, suddenly regretting her curiosity.
They had reached the base of the stairs, which came out in another dim, narrow hall, and Eliza turned to brusquely take the linens from her. “Here, you just let me handle this, my girl. I don’t know what you were doing in the young miss’s room, but that’s not your zone. Go see Mrs. Raastri for what you’re supposed to be about. She doesn’t look well on idle hands.”
“O-of course,” Eleanora said, then dipped an awkward little curtsy. “Thank you for the help, Eliza.”
In the process of turning to go, Eliza paused, frowning at her. “Oh. Did I tell you my name?”
“I—of course, you must have. Excuse me.”
She turned and scuttled off down the hall in the other direction, leaving her suspicious chambermaid behind, and rounded the first corner she came to. Sloppy, she chided herself…but in her defense, intrigues of this nature were a bit outside her expertise. In any case, this wasn’t fun anymore. Time she returned to her room…
Wait, where exactly was she?
Taking stock of her bearings, Eleanora found she was actually in front of an exterior door, small but set with a frosted glass pane that gave her a watery view of the delivery alley behind the house. Right where Sharidan’s note told her to be.
The thought of him loitering out there all night by himself gave her a malicious little spark of satisfaction. In fact, she could probably arrange to embarrass him further by setting a city constable on him. The fury that would cause the Empress would earn her points with her father, as well.
But no, any man who could arrange all this would be prepared for such obvious possibilities. In fact…
Raising her chin, Eleanora grasped the handle, opened the door, and slipped out. So she didn’t know how to have fun? The hell she didn’t—she just wasn’t bloody well allowed to. If she wanted to enjoy herself a bit, she was more than entitled, after putting up with her parents all night. And if that meant enduring the company of a smarmy prince with improper designs upon her person, well, there were worse things. He definitely wouldn’t force his attentions, or allow her to be harmed. He wouldn’t dare. Her father scarcely needed such a pretext to unleash every hell his considerable resources could manage as it was.
She was still sullenly justifying this course of action to herself when a sleek, quiet enchanted carriage which did not belong in this back alley pulled up next to her, making her jump. The driver nodded courteously to her, tugging the brim of his cap, and then the passenger door door swung open to reveal a familiar face.
“My lady,” the prince of Tiraas said with a roguish grin. “I’m so glad you decided to join me.”
“I must say you went to a great deal of trouble,” Eleanora replied, folding her arms and lifting an eyebrow. Did he have some mechanism to see through this disguise? Did he just know what the person wearing it would look like? Or was he actually reckless enough to pick up the first servant girl who came out of her house? “Not that I wasn’t amused at the thought of you wasting all that effort, but it seems to me a man who could arrange all this could potentially show me an…interesting evening.”
“Interesting is what I do best,” he said with a wink, and extended a hand to her. Eleanora made a show of considering this before allowing him to help her into the carriage. “And since we are now partners in crime, let’s be honest with each other. You are well overdue for some proper fun, Lady Eleanora. I have the strangest feeling you’re positively starved for it.”
She sniffed disdainfully. “You know much less than you think, your Highness.”
“Now that, my lady,” he said, grinning widely, “is an absolute certainty. But I look forward to learning.”